Against entropy — Why product managers really manage conversations | by Trilly Chatterjee | Sep, 2021

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There’s a reading of my definition above that might seem unappealingly passive to some. Surely the product manager is a driver, an agent of change, a mini-CEO — or some other self-aggrandising metaphor that centres the PM as someone who effectively instrumentalises others— the visionary genius who takes control of things.

Melissa Perri busts this myth in the intro to her Product Management Foundations course — but she appears to be in the minority in an industry that still too often hangs its hat on the Jobsian myth of the ‘visionary.

This might be the way to get people with a certain strain of ambition to apply for your jobs — but its not what my experience tells me effective product managers actually do for their teams and organisations.

Sadly the critical organisation-facilitating function of product management has for some time been cloaked in a hazy mystique that ultimately doesn’t serve our cause — delivering products, services and infrastructure that better meet people’s needs.

So much of being a product manager is about making sure the right conversations are happening — irrespective of whether the PM is a participant in them or not. If they are happening — happy days! If not — time to hustle:

  • Sometimes it’s simply making sure the right people are talking.
  • Sometimes it’s setting up the space and prerequisites for a productive conversation about X — one that reaches actual conclusions and decisions that move things toward clarity and action.
  • Sometimes it’s about finding people with the right expertise or authority to involve in a conversation.

My definition and rationale above attempts to address these problems by articulating not only what product management seeks to achieve, but how it claims to do so and (most importantly) why it is necessary:

  • What? — The understanding and maximising of the value services deliver.
  • How? — Through timely, relevant and informed conversation between those responsible for delivering services (and any other relevant people).
  • Why? — Because navigating complexity to deliver effective services & policy requires the integration and alignment of diverse perspectives, both within and beyond delivery teams.

In this scheme, a good product manager is more an orchestrator of necessary conversations than someone who instrumentalises people toward their own ‘visionary’ plans and goals. It recognises that in reality the visions that stand the test of time are in general the hard-won work of collaborative endeavour under challenging circumstances.

That is what I believe the heart of product management is in practical terms.

It begins with understanding a context — a system, an organisation, a team, a set of goals or purposes. Users and stakeholders, needs and policies, technologies and operations, constraints and dependencies.

It moves through cycles of decision and action — what could and should be done, and who could and should be involved in doing it.

“What conversations matter most right now?”

“Who should be involved in them?”

“How should we have them?”

“What do they need to achieve?”

“What will we do next?”

Rinse and repeat — until DONE.

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